Having seen the art world respond to a global pandemic in a myriad of ways, from a socially distanced movie theater to pre-recorded modern dance (confined by a computer screen), I was eager to see how opera would adapt as well. The online production of The Big Opera Show, and online fundraiser for Seattle Opera, seemed the perfect way to explore this art medium digitally. Because I have not seen much opera in person, I was hopeful that the medley of performances The Big Opera Show provided would give my fresh perspective much to enjoy.
Although I am quite new to the opera form of art, I was not going into this experience completely clueless. An opera that I had the chance of viewing during the long-ago pre-covid times was The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which made a point to inform the audience that the performers were using microphones. This was notable because, traditionally, performances by the Seattle Opera do not utilize microphones. While microphones can be used to blend operatic voices with electrically amplified instruments to create a cohesive piece or assist a performance that consists of more dialogue than usual, it is not the norm. Because of this, I was curious to see how the required use of microphones for the online format would affect the gravity of the performance. Thankfully, the performers’ voices translated powerfully even through my laptop’s speakers.
Karen Vuong started the performances off with a stirringly dramatic rendition of “Che tua madre dovrá,” from the classic opera Madama Butterfly. The stage featured a simple scene of Vuong and an accompanying pianist on stage, this simplicity contrasting with the beautiful depth in Vuong’s voice. Although I had no previous knowledge of Madama Butterfly, there were helpful subtitles provided on the YouTube video so I could follow along and give meaning to Vuong’s somber tones. Lawrence Brownlee also gave a strong performance of “Stay in My Arms,” and the power that was captured in the online venue was impressive. Although he was confined in an office-style setting, his performance was worthy of the stage. Combined with a tablet displaying a video of his accompanying pianist, this performance gave me the variation of opera that I had been hoping for, as the song had a more modern tone and was sung in English. While all of the voices remained strong even when played on a laptop, the online format was also a great way to explore more interesting scenery, as was displayed in the final performance of the show, an excerpt from the opera Flight. This performance was set in an airport and each singer had an appropriate costume to match, which gave it an extra air of professionalism and interest.
But even before the strong voices of notable performers, such as Brownlee and Vuong, graced my living room, the performance was filled with fun details to keep even a person new to opera, such as myself, intrigued. About half an hour before the start of the performance, the video looped through different trivia questions (with hints!) for the virtual audience members to enjoy. One particularly notable bit of trivia was “While working on I Puritani, this composer wrote to his librettist to say that opera, through singing, should make one ‘weep, shudder, die,’” the answer being “Bellini.” While keeping the audience interested for the upcoming show, the pre-performance time also included a QR code with a link to an augmented reality version of an opera performance by Margaret Gawrysiak. Excitedly I clicked on the link, but while the sound functioned perfectly, Gawrysiak’s virtual form was half cut off vertically and confined to the corner of the screen, awkwardly glitching around. Perhaps because I accessed it on an Android phone, the video was not at optimal quality and it hopefully worked better for other guests. Functional or not, the thought of getting to watch an opera show performed in my living room was quite exciting and I look forward to future developments.
When the show began, the host, Rebecca M. Davis, enthusiastically led us through the variety of performances with a bit of opera “magic.” The upbeat tone that was set by Davis made the performance jump off the screen and gave great energy for all of the performers to play off of. Because of the show’s shorter time span, there were four songs planned to be sung. Unfortunately, the song “Where Did Our Love Go,” to be performed by The Jewel Tones, was not included in the video, as the video glitched, then jumped ahead in the program. With the sudden shift to fully virtual performances, it is understandable that there might still be some technology problems to work out and that the experience will not be quite the same as an in-person show.
The virtual version of The Big Opera Show gave its audience an ambitious combination of classic opera and new technology and was a great way to introduce oneself to or learn more about the opera form of art during the pandemic. A variety of songs and interesting digital elements kept the audience engaged even before the performance began and gave energy to the rather distancing medium of online performance. Although there were some technological glitches, this enterprising performance is thoroughly entertaining and an enjoyable way to experience opera from the confines of your own home.
The Big Opera Show is available to stream on YouTube through April 25, 2021. For more information see here.